(Reproduced from ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate)
“Each night when she came from work I would be tense and nervous. I didn’t know in what way she was going to abuse me.” This is Matthew’s story: the tale of a man who was regularly abused by his female partner in his own home. Contrary to general wisdom, such stories are commonplace across Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 435,000 men have experienced violence from their current or previous partner since the age of 15.
Male victims of family violence – perhaps even more so than women – often face barriers to disclosing their abuse. They are likely to be told that there must be something they did to provoke their partner’s violence. They can suffer shame, embarrassment and the social stigma of not being able to protect themselves. They can feel uncertain about where to seek help, or how to seek help.
Alan, another male victim, finally summoned up the courage to talk to someone about his partner’s ongoing sexual abuse. “Who to talk to for advice – family or friends? No way. I looked up the Yellow Pages. The voice answering the phone at the Rape Crisis Centre said, ‘Only women are abused’. I spoke to a doctor. She seemed to listen to my stammering for a few minutes and then while scribbling asked, ‘What are you doing to make her behave that way?’.”
Abuse of men takes many of the same forms as abuse of women – physical violence, intimidation and threats; sexual, emotional, psychological, verbal and financial abuse; property damage, harming pets, and social isolation. Men, more so than women, can also experience legal and administrative abuse – the use of institutions to inflict further abuse on a victim, for example, taking out false restraining orders or not allowing the victim access to his children.
George experienced this type of abuse. “My wife would not let me see the kids. She accused me of sexually molesting my daughter. I was devastated. I didn’t see my kids for ages. After a Court hearing which lasted ten days, the judge found that my ex-wife herself had molested my daughter in an effort to generate evidence against me. Despite this, she was still allowed custody. And the Court and the child welfare agency refused to take any action against her.”
Dr Elizabeth Celi, a Melbourne psychologist says, “Unlike physical violence, many of the forms of domestic abuse faced by male victims are difficult to detect and hard for the man himself to defend against. A man’s health is wrapped up in his identity. Attacking his self-worth through various forms of criticism, manipulation and intimidation are forms of emotional and verbal violence that we need to learn about as a society and say ‘Enough!’”
As well as the effects of violence on men, their children can suffer the same impacts as do children of female victims. These include witnessing family violence by their parents or step-parents, experiencing direct violence and abuse themselves, and suffering a range of negative impacts on their behavioural, cognitive and emotional functioning and social development. Neglecting violence against men means neglecting these children.
There are many misunderstandings about male victims of family violence. Some argue that men aren’t affected as badly as women. Others argue that female violence is usually carried out in self-defence. Yet others assert that women’s violence isn’t part of an overall pattern of control and domination. An extensive review of Australian and international research finds little evidence to support these claims.
This November 19 was International Men’s Day. As part of the day’s celebrations, a new campaign and website for male victims of family violence was launched. The One in Three Campaign is named after the little known fact that up to one in three victims of sexual assault and at least one in three victims of family violence is male (perhaps as many as one in two). All authoritative sources support this figure. For example, researcher Murray Straus conducted an extensive study of partner violence by male and female university students in 32 nations and found that, in Australia, 14 per cent of physical violence between dating partners during the previous 12 months was perpetrated by males only, 21 per cent by females only and 64.9 per cent was mutual violence.
The One in Three Campaign aims to raise public awareness of the existence and needs of male victims of family violence; to work with government and non-government services alike to provide assistance to male victims; and to reduce the incidence and impacts of family violence on Australian men, women and children. Supporters of the campaign include Dr Celi, Maggie Hamilton, author of What Men Don’t Talk About and Steve Biddulph, author of The Secret of Happy Children.
Hamilton says, “Until researching What Men Don’t Talk About I had no idea about domestic violence towards men. In speaking about it with friends I was then shocked to discover this had touched the lives of several close friends. These were men of all backgrounds – from manual labourers to professional men. In some cases the violence was inter-generational. While we remain silent on this issue, men continue to be hurt, to be ignored. Once we believed only little girls were subject to sexual abuse, and so countless boys were abused. The same is now true of men.”
Biddulph writes, “With family violence, we had to address ‘women and children first’; but in 2009, the troubling, gritty nub of violence is in families where both partners are violent, as well as those most hidden, where women hit men. Today nobody approves of or accepts wife bashing. Husband bashing needs this same condemnation and action, because everyone needs help to live in safety, and women and men equally need programs to steer them to safer ways of living in families. Violence is a miserable way to live, for perpetrator and victim, and for little children forced to watch. Solving violence against husbands can close the loop on eradicating violence from our wider society.”
While many services have quite rightly been established over the past three decades to support female victims of family violence, the needs of male victims remain largely unmet. Acknowledging this imbalance, the Western Australian Men’s Advisory Network (MAN) recently commissioned ground-breaking research by Edith Cowan University (ECU) into the nature and extent of domestic abuse against men.
Executive officer Gary Bryant stresses that MAN recognises that the majority of family and domestic violence is against women and that it is not seeking to divert funding from support for female abuse victims. “The aim of this study is to help paint a clear picture of what constitutes abuse, what might prevent men from reporting it and what is needed to support male victims.” The ECU study will be released in the first half of 2010.
Greg Millan, director of Men’s Health Services in Newcastle, was recently contacted by a domestic violence agency worker who had decided that it was time to start providing support for men as well as women. She had witnessed growing numbers of male victims appearing in court without any services to assist them. Greg subsequently developed and successfully runs a training program called Working with Men affected by Violence, for workers in the domestic violence and family relationship sector.
On the international front, more than 15 years ago the Valley Oasis shelter in Lancaster, California, became the first in the USA to give refuge to victims regardless of their gender. “Our philosophy is that domestic violence is a societal problem,” said Carol Ensign, the shelter’s executive director. “Nobody deserves to get hit, whether they are 2 months old or 80 years old, whether they are a man or woman, child or teen. Nobody deserves violence in their lives.”
A groundbreaking Dutch scheme involving a one year trial, supported by $A1.6 million in government funding, has recently established shelters for abused men in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. In Ireland, Mary Cleary founded Amen in December 1997, a voluntary group providing a confidential helpline, support service and information for male victims of domestic abuse. In the UK, the Next Steps Housing Association has recently created 100 places in 35 refuge houses across Northamptonshire for husbands and partners of abusive women. The Men’s Advice Line – a confidential helpline for all men experiencing domestic violence by a current or ex-partner – has also been established in the UK. In Wales, the Dyn Wales helpline has been set up to give support to male victims across the country.
Regrettably, Australian government policies have been based on the assumption that almost all perpetrators are male and almost all victims are female. As such, there is little support available for abused men in this country. Now is the time for action by politicians and community leaders to recognise that a comprehensive approach is required to combat the scourge of family violence. The One in Three Campaign is doing its bit to help. Its website can be found at www.oneinthree.com.au.